Five Questions for: Eisa Shukran and Vincent Gentile

Vincent Gentile, Five Questions, Stoney Brook University, Iron ChefEisa Shukran, Five Questions, Stoney Brook University, Iron ChefMany colleges have staged culinary competitions as a fun event to get students involved. But at 24,600-student Stony Brook University in New York, dining services decided to use their Iron Chef event to raise money for a charity. Four teams of students competed for a check for $5,000 to be donated to a charity for their choice. Eisa Shukran, resident district manager for Lackmann Culinary Services, which manages the account, and Vincent Gentile, director of marketing for campus dining services, spoke to FSD about how their department organized the event.

How was the event organized?

We were looking for a fun event that could excite as much of the community as possible. Cooking competitions are very popular, and this was a good way to build a stronger relationship between campus dining and the Stony Brook community. We wanted to do something bigger than a one-on-one competition so we planned for four teams of three students to each battle it out during a one-hour competition. We gave each team a list of ingredients to work with, as well as one secret ingredient, which ended up being fiddlehead ferns. Each team was paired with a campus chef, who assisted with menu planning and just insured that nothing went horribly wrong. We wanted the students to be front and center. Faculty, staff and other students were invited to judge the results and the crowd also got a collective vote. We worked closely with the campus charitable foundation to select a number of organizations supported by the fund. Student groups then had an opportunity to select any charity from the list. The winning team was The Hungry Hungry Hippos. The wining dish was a wrap with cheese, broccoli, fiddlehead ferns and chicken accompanied by a carbonara noodle. The winning team’s proceeds went to The Sunrise Fund at Stony Brook, which brings awareness to childhood cancer.

How were participants selected?

Competition was open to any students that formed a group of three and wanted to participate. We set up an online entry form through our Web site. We had 20 groups signup after a week. We then took each group’s picture and posted the 20 entrants on the Web site, along with the charity for which they were playing. After a week of online voting, the four teams with the most votes competed.

What were some of the biggest challenges setting something like this up?

Since this was the first time we did this, a lot of coordination was needed. From the building management, to the fire marshal to the chefs, the purchasing, the Stony Brook Foundation—we had to make sure that every detail was covered.

What was the marketing of the event like?

We made a lot of Web site announcements. We have a pretty robust Web site and we announced the event for several weeks. We posted daily reminders on our Facebook page that drew greater attention to the competition and helped us gain more participants. We placed posters in key locations, as well as table tents in the dining rooms. We placed announcements on our digital signage and submitted to the campus announcement system. During the event, a member of our staff posted progress updates every ten minutes on our Facebook and Twitter accounts. We were able to build excitement, and a large crowd, with these updates.

What advice would you give to other operators who might want to do something similar?

Plan, plan, and plan. Don't go into this lightly. The more involved and interactive you make it, the more memorable it will be for everyone.